Say what you will about People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- better known and often reviled as PETA -- but there's no denying their methods are, ahem, eye-catching. Sex sells, as PETA well knows, and there's probably never been an activist organization quite as openly willing to use it to advance its agenda; PETA's "naked activists" are a well known staple of the groups public relations strategy. Ashley Byrne is such an activist -- and she may be cute in a bikini made of lettuce, but make no mistake: She's hardcore.
A graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder in humanities with a political science concentration, Byrne has always had a soft spot for animals, and the political research firm she went to work for in Washington, D.C., just wasn't doing it for her. "I wanted to make an impact," she says, "and I didn't think that was happening, so I answered an ad for PETA and ended up working in their campaign department. "
From there, Byrne says, all she needed to see to get involved with the naked activists -- who are famous for stripping down to skivvies or less and appearing on the street in costumes or body paint handing out pamphlets and holding signs with catchy slogans -- was to see how effective they were.
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"If you hear these stories," says Byrne, "like animals on fur farms being skinned alive or animals caught in traps gnawing off their limbs -- I mean, these stories are horrifying. These are really the kind of depressing stories that people will go out of their way not to find out about. But I also saw how, when people saw or read these stories of activists being outside naked or in body paint, especially in the cold, they couldn't help but want to find out more."
On her recent European tour (she returned stateside on Friday) -- making stops in Madrid, Paris, Rome, Vienna and Istanbul, Byrne and her team focused on getting people to stop wearing fur, sporting snake-skin or leopard-print body paint and signs with slogans like "Wear Your Own Skin" and "Animal Prints, Not Animal Skins" -- Byrne says the feedback was almost universally positive, and that they didn't run into a whole lot of resistance. "Even in Istanbul, where there had never been a demonstration of this kind before, we didn't. The only real resistance, if you can call it that, was the police came over and were concerned that we would get too cold."
The cold, though, is just part of the gig; on Byrne's next tour of the northwestern U.S., scheduled to begin in January, she'll be out on the street in a lettuce bikini, trying to get people to make vegan eating choices. But hour-long shifts in inhospitable weather and scant clothing, says Byrne, are nothing compared to what farmed animals have to endure, and that, ultimately, is what puts it in perspective.
"I'm not really a fan of cold weather," she admits, "but generally what I would do is just remind myself when it was cold and it was uncomfortable that I get to go indoors when it's done, but animals on a fur farm spend their entire lives in cages exposed to the elements, in the worst heat and the freezing cold. I'd just think about how much worse their suffering was, and then it seemed like nothing. Being chilly for an hour is nothing compared to a life of misery."